Unable to attend the live telecast of the Met’s performance of La Traviata, I went to the replay on May 2, 2012. The production was first staged by German director Willy Decker last season. Decker sets the action in an indeterminate (but approximately modern) time on a mostly empty stage rimmed by a semicircular wall. There’s some pretty heavy handed Teutonic symbolism involving a clock (we’ve known for a century and a half that Violetta’s dying and is running out of time) and a red dress meant to tell us something else we already knew – she’s a party girl. There’s also an old man who Violetta staggers towards during the first act prelude. He appears ominously throughout the show; it took me until the last scene to figure out he was Dr Grenvil. More unnecessary symbolism.
In the two party scenes the women were dressed in men’s clothing. Some of the staging conflicted with the libretto the words of which were right in front of us. The most glaring example of this was in the second act when Violetta is standing right next Alfredo when he tells her maid not to tell her mistress that he’s going back to Paris to raise some money. She’s onstage because Decker has Alfredo cavorting with her while he sings ‘De’ miei bollenti spiriti’. They both are wearing identical flower covered robes. He doesn’t have his pants on; accordingly the sentiments he expresses are mock serious. He puts them ( the pants) on during his cabaletta. This may be an operatic first or I may not go to enough European performances. While we’re on cabalettas, I was saddened to find them all there. Verdi wrote them because he had to at the time, but La Traviata is an opera that does much better without them.
La Traviata is one of opera’s greatest masterpieces and is as popular as it is excellent. But it’s terribly difficult to find a soprano who can sail through the pyrotechnics of the first act and who can also meet the dramatic demands of the two succeeding acts. We’re still looking for her.
La Traviata more than any other Verdi opera depends on one character – Violetta. In this version she is a victim. I think this is the result of Decker’s staging rather than Natalie Dessay’s performance, though the singer made some bad choices. She silently coughed during the prelude and did so audibly near the end of the first act. Verdi did not want coughing from Violetta; this is not verismo opera. Verdi made his “sinner” a creature of poetry and heroism. None of these qualities were present in this performance.
This run is Dessay’s first attempt at the role at the Met. In my opinion she’s about 10 years too late for the part. Remember, we’re discussing a televised performance with all it’s cruel close-ups. To a live audience she doubtless approached a verisimilitude that was denied her by the camera. She also had vocal problems. She cracked just before the high note in ‘Sempre libera’ which she missed. She freely admitted the error during her intermission interview. She also had numerous small breaks in her voice, which though very brief, were very noticeable. I also thought that she lacked the vocal power needed for the two last acts. She seemed unhappy with herself during her curtain calls, though the audience seemed enthusiastic.
Matthew Polenzani has a pleasant lyric tenor. Alfredo is about as far as he can push his voice. In early middle age he looked and dressed, except when he didn’t have his pants on, like a portly banker. Another victim of the unkindness of television. He sang his part well, but there was nothing memorable about it.
Dmitri Hvorostovsky is the best Verdi baritone around. His performance as the elder Germont was generally solid, though he ran into a rough patch just before the high note of ‘Di Provenza’; the high note that followed was fine. Dramatically he delivered a very odd interpretation. He remained aloof from Violetta during the entirety of his duet in the second act. There was no transition from haughty to sympathy that the scene demands. This duet is the core of the opera. Hvorostovsky’s emotional distance robbed it of all it dramatic impact and vitiated its impact. Instead of sweeping the listener away, the scene dragged and approached the soporific. It also made Germont’s subsequent behavior to Violetta seem disconnected to his previous attitude. He should rethink the part.
Fabio Luisi delivered a flabby reading of Verdi’s score which need tautness. His conducting along with all the opened cuts made the opera seem long. To make La Traviata succeed you don’t have do do much besides following Verdi’s directions. If this opera seems long it’s not the composer’s fault.
The comprimario parts were indifferently performed. The Lubbock Symphony Orchestra’s concert performance of this opera in March had better secondary singers than did the Met – hard to fathom.
In summary, an idiosyncratic mounting of one of art’s singular achievements with a gifted soprano who was not quite up to the demands of her part.
Metropolitan Opera House
April 14, 2012 Matinee, HD Transmission/Simulcast
Giuseppe Verdi–Francesco Maria Piave
Baron Douphol………..Jason Stearns
Marquis D’Obigny……..Kyle Pfortmiller
Dr. Grenvil………….Luigi Roni
Associate Costume Designer…Susana Mendoza
Lighting Designer…….Hans Toelstede
TV Director………….Gary Halvorson